The Cable

Accused War Criminal May Not Come to New York, After All

After stirring up a firestorm of controversy by announcing his intention to attend the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sudanese President and accused war criminal Omar al-Bashir may be getting cold feet. As recently as Sunday, Bashir confirmed his travel plans, claiming to have booked a flight through Morocco and even a hotel in New York. But senior U.N. diplomats are nonetheless beginning to wonder if the accused genocidaire will risk arrest and extradition to the International Criminal Court by setting foot in Manhattan.

"That's my assumption [that he's not coming], but we're planning on anything," a senior U.N. official told Foreign Policy. "Would he want to see the [General Assembly] hall clear out?"

As the host country for the United Nations, the United States is obligated to grant visas to foreign leaders and their representatives, regardless of the status of bilateral relations with the U.S. government (though it can deny diplomats entry on national security grounds). But Bashir, who has been twice indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes committed in the country's Darfur region, would be the first leader to attend the General Assembly with a warrant out for his arrest.

Bashir stands accused of orchestrating a massive genocidal campaign against non-Arab minorities in the Darfur region that has left roughly 300,000 people dead since 2003, according to the United Nations. The fighting, which had died down in recent years, has picked up again, with an estimated 300,000 people displaced since the beginning of 2013.   

The United States is not a party to the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, and so would not be legally bound to extradite Bashir. Still, the State Department has said it is weighing the ICC's extradition request, and the U.S. government has transferred suspects to the court in the past. Privately, American officials are working to discourage Bashir from making the journey to New York, according to a U.N. diplomat who asked not to be named. "They're trying to explain to [Sudanese officials] how difficult this could be for [Bashir] and that it could create a situation that is not entirely in [American] control," said the diplomat. The message they are seeking to convey, the diplomat added, is that it's better for him not to come.

There is no word yet on whether the State Department will approve the Sudanese leader's visa request.

The United States has previously come under fire for delaying or denying the visa requests of U.N. officials. In 1988, it barred Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, from addressing the General Assembly, and in 2007, it denied a visa request by Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia. Other foreign parties have alleged that the State Department skirts its obligation to admit U.N. diplomats by granting visa requests at the last moment -- or even after the General Assembly has concluded.

In this case, the State Department may not need to rule one way or the other. Bashir, who has increasingly confined his travel to Africa and the Middle East, may decide that the trip to New York is not worth the risk.

"He's very much afraid. He's not a brave person who likes to take risks," said a third U.N. official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He has cancelled trips to countries where he has been less exposed to risk." 

Richard Dicker, the director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, agreed: "The fact that the U.S. to my knowledge has yet to issue a visa, and that the ICC has requested that the U.S. arrest him, creates the kind of uncertainty as to what could happen that could give [Bashir] some cause to ponder how much he wants to come to New York," he said.

In recent years, Bashir has canceled trips to Malaysia, Uganda, and Turkey at the last minute after human rights groups pressed for his arrest. In July, he was forced to leave Nigeria unexpectedly after human rights lawyers filed a lawsuit attempting to compel the Nigerian government to comply with the ICC extradition request. Sudanese officials denied that this was the reason for Bashir's hasty departure -- he left after less than 24 hours without delivering a scheduled address -- claiming that he had another engagement to attend instead.

"Ultimately, it's the president-slash-fugitive's decision whether or not he will come to New York," said Dicker. But "booking a hotel room is in no way determinative of whether or not he's coming."

Not everyone thinks the Sudanese strongman will stay away, however. "I'm not sure why he would do that," a European official told Foreign Policy when asked if Bashir might be amending his travel plans. "Now that there is no Ahmadinejad, no Qaddafi, no Chavez, no Mugabe, he could get a lot of attention here." The official also mentioned the potential for Bashir to ride the publicity wave into next month's African Union summit at which African officials will consider joining Kenya's bid to withdraw from the ICC.

"African states would not walk out on Bashir," said the official. "It would be the EU and Latin America."

Although his status as an international pariah has prevented him from traveling in much of the world, Bashir has managed to roam relatively freely in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Since 2009, when the ICC first indicted him for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Sudanese strongman has traveled to half a dozen African countries, as well as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, among others. He has even risked extradition by traveling to ICC signatories like Chad, Kenya, Djibouti, and Malawi.

Whether he's willing to put it all on the line to flout the international community in Turtle Bay remains an open question, but an increasing number of U.N. observers are ready to call his bluff.

"This decision was about sticking his finger in the eye of the international community as it gathers for the opening for the General Assembly and particularly the Security Council that mandated the ICC to investigate and prosecute the serious crimes in Darfur," said Dicker. Judging by the outpouring of anger at the proposed trip, Bashir has already achieved his objective.


The Cable

Iran's Charm Offensive Has Diplomats Asking Themselves: Is It Real?

Iran, the perennial bad boy of the international community, has suddenly become the diplomatic darling at this year's U.N. General Assembly session, mounting a charm offensive that has many U.N. diplomats asking themselves: Can this be real?

In anticipation of President Hasan Rouhani's diplomatic debut before the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, Iran's American-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has been working the U.N. corridors, telling anyone who will listen that Iran has changed its stripes and that its nuclear ambitions do not extend beyond its desire to generate more electricity.

"I have been a multilateralist all my life; Iran wants to engage with the world," Zarif told a gathering of more than 100 diplomats at a private luncheon at the U.N. delegates' dining room, according to a diplomat who was in the room. A former Iranian envoy to the United Nations, Zarif insisted that Iran is ready to deal: "We will move ahead and resolve the [nuclear] problem, not just for the sake of negotiation, not just for the sake of talking."

The Iranian charm offensive contrasted starkly with Iran's previous appearances at the United Nations. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's former president, took a certain pleasure in pushing Washington's buttons, lambasting Israel and raising doubts about the veracity of American claims that al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks. The change of tone from the Ahmadinejad era appears to be having an effect. "The diplomatic initiative of Iran has certainly had an impact," said Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador. "People are keen to see diplomatic solutions and therefore [are] open to listening."

The White House is clearly enticed by the Iranian overtures. The Iranian diplomat has been invited to participate in a meeting of big-power ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on Iran's nuclear program. "We welcome Iran engaging seriously," said Ben Rhodes, a top national security advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama, who added that the White House wouldn't rule out the possibility of a meeting between the two leaders. "As you heard us say repeatedly, we are open to engagement with the Iranian government at a variety of levels provided that they will follow through on their commitments to address the international community's concerns over their nuclear program," he said.

European Union high representative Catherine Ashton, who is chairing the meeting on Iran's nuclear program and who had her first face-to-face meeting with Zarif on Monday, told reporters at U.N. headquarters that the Iranian diplomat would have a "short discussion" with his big-power counterparts later this week. "This is the first meeting in order to establish how we would work together," she said. "We had a good and constructive discussion." Ashton and her team will conduct more detailed discussions with Zarif and his advisors in Geneva next month.

Ashton said that her discussion with Zarif focused primarily on Iran's plan to resume talks on its nuclear program. She said they did not discuss any steps Iran is willing to take to assure the outside world that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon. "We didn't talk about the details of what we should do. The purpose of this meeting was to establish how we would go forward," she said. "In terms of whether we are on the verge of a breakthrough, I would put it like this: I was struck by the energy and the determination that the foreign minister demonstrated to me."

But not everyone was swayed by the Iranian diplomatic gambit. Gary Samore, an expert on nuclear weapons proliferation at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said that while he supports U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran, he warns that people shouldn't get their hopes up too high. "Nobody is fooled by the charm offense; everybody understands the supreme leader is seeking nuclear weapons," he said. "No matter how many times Rouhani smiles doesn't change the basic objective of the program."

Samore said that Iran has been forced into reopening nuclear negotiations in a bid to seek relief from crippling U.S., European, and U.N. sanctions. But he is skeptical that Iran will be prepared to pay the price to secure serious relief from sanctions. "The price tag is going to be very steep; they will need to accept physical limits on their enrichment capacity and stockpiling," he said. "I haven't seen any indication that they are willing to sacrifice that part of the program, which has taken 10 years to build up."

The Iranian nuclear issue has gone through a series of wild ups and downs since 2002, when satellite pictures captured two clandestine nuclear sites in Arak and Natanz, raising suspicions that Iran was pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program. In 2005, after the election of Ahmadinejad, Iran launched a large-scale uranium-enrichment program.

The Iranian government has denied it is pursuing nuclear weapons, saying that it needs to enrich uranium to expand the country's energy producing capacity. Successive efforts to strike a bargain that would place Iran's nuclear program under greater scrutiny in exchange for an easing of international sanctions and supplying Tehran with trade and energy concessions have foundered.

Still, the prospect of a thaw in relations between the United States and Iran prompted calls from key Democratic and Republican leaders to maintain economic sanctions on Iran until it proves it is prepared to take verifiable steps to ensure the world that it is not pursing nuclear weapons.

"We respectfully urge that any diplomatic outreach to Iran re-emphasizes that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and that any relief from crippling economic sanctions on Iran will only be provided if Iran takes meaningful and verifiable actions to halt its nuclear activities," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote in a letter to Obama.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned that Iran has previously used "negotiations as a subterfuge for progress on its clandestine nuclear program"

"Iran is not a friend whose word can be taken as a promise," they wrote. "The test of Iranian seriousness must be verifiable action by Iran to terminate its nuclear weapons program."